BOOK CHEWING: My Interview with John Birmingham, author of STALIN’S HAMMER: ROME

I am a huge fan of John Birmingham. From the cult classic He Died With A Felafel In His Hand through to his techno thrillers and everything in between. For his latest book, Stalin’s Hammer: Rome, John is doing something different. Borrowing a bit from yesteryear while simultaneously diving head first into the new frontier of publishing, John has decided to publish his new book digitally only. He is also writing this new book as a serial novel. So rather than the epic tomes we have become used to he is going to feed our reading appetites in installments. I’ve blogged my thoughts on Stalin’s Hammer: Rome (PS I loved it) in the meantime John Birmingham has kindly answered a few questions about his new book and the decision to go digital only:

Why have you decided to publish your new book digitally only? 

Well, it’s not entirely my decision. I’ve been looking at e-books as a model for about two years now. Both as stand-alone publications and also as a backlist issue. I had lunch with Nick Earls about a year or so back to lament how slowly the industry seemed to be moving into digital. At that point I was seriously considering self-publishing a couple of short stories or novellas in an electronic format just as an experiment, to test out some theories I have. But then Pan MacMillan set up Momentum and a lot of their theories about how e-books should work are the same as mine, so it was a no-brainer to go with them since they’re already my “real” book publisher.

Rather than the normal full length novel your writing this new series as a serial. How many parts have you planned and what frequency will you publish them? 

I’m hoping to work up to a schedule of releasing one e-book every two months from next year. Three months if that proves unsustainable.

What made you decided to revisit the world of the Axis of Time? 

The fans want it. By the time I finished that series I was very, very tired of living in my alternative second world war. It was the first trilogy I’d ever written, I learned a lot, but it wore me down. I needed a break. Almost immediately, however, people started fronting me online demanding to know what happened next. That’s been going on for years. Long enough that I have recovered my original energy and interest for the story, so I figured what the hell. The way that electronic publication has breathed life back into some old formats, such as the novella and the serial, made it not just possible to return to the original story, but an interesting challenge as well.

How does writing a shorter piece change your writing process? 

There was some famous author, I forget who, who when asked why he didn’t write short stories, replied that he didn’t have time. In some ways a sprawling 200,000 word manuscript is much easier to put together than a tightly controlled short story of three or 4000 words, where you have no margin for error or faffing around. What was it Raymond Chandler used to do when he wrote himself into a corner? Send a guy with a gun through the door. A novel gives you the space to do that and to work out the consequences over 100s of pages. Shorter narrative forms don’t.

I’ve also always written for ensemble casts. The Axis of Time novels and the Disappearance novels were all told from multiple points of view. Again, another luxury you don’t have in the short form. Stalin’s Hammer: Rome runs under 50,000 words last I checked. That’s enough for two characters to tell an interlinked story, and no more. No side quests, no treasure hunts, no indulgences of any kind. That was tough. It took me a while to get my head around that. If I needed to move a character across the city, for instance, they just had to go. There was no spending six or seven chapters on the journey.

Technology has a huge impact in this series. What have been some of the challenges with technology returning to the Axis of Time after 5 years away? 

Getting things wrong. That’s always a challenge. I did pretty well with some technologies, and totally borked it with others. Flexipads, for instance. Steve Jobs and me, we both saw that one coming when most of the tech industry didn’t. I even managed to almost guess the name of the iPad. Just think, if I had actually nailed that, rather than calling them flexipads, I could have retired on the payout from Apple just for the intellectual property wrapped up in that one word. I’m not bitter. No. Not at all.

Having predicted the rise of mobile computing, however, I’ve been proved to be a haplessly misguided enthusiast with weaponry. The original timeline for Weapons of Choice isn’t that far away now and although you can see some very early alpha and beta versions of some of the tech I described like reactive matrix body armor, it’s still a way off.

More interesting for me was to ponder what had happened to the technology of the story world in the 10 years that had passed since the end of Final Impact. With 10 years of peace, or relative peace, to devote to exploiting advanced consumer technologies rather than weapons, where would the alternate 1950s be. You get some good glimpses of it in Rome, but I’m looking forward to fully exploring that question in future novels.

What is the best part of reimagining all the political permutations of World War Two? 

Kicking the shit out of people who really deserved it.

Any plans to revisit the Disappearance Trilogy in the future in the same way you have revisited The Axis of Time series? 

You bet. In fact I am working on the first of the Disappearance ebooks right now. The working title is The Escape, and it picks up the stories of Caitlin, Sofia and Milosz about half an hour after the end of the main storyline in Angels of Vengeance. We know from the epilogue of Angels that Caitlin and Sofia at least have a future with Echelon, but it’s never really explained how they got there, and how they got out of Texas. The Escape will do that.

I found it interesting that about a hundred pages out from the end of Angels I was already missing some of those characters. That wasn’t the case with the Axis of Time books. By the end of that first trilogy, I needed the break. But I had grown so close to a couple of characters in the Disappearance world that I couldn’t bear the thought of just putting down the pen and walking away from them. So there will be plenty more stories set in that world.

Digital only I assume means no more promotional tours. Will you miss visiting bookshops and meeting readers in person to sell your wares? 

If that were the case, I would miss it very much. But I am still writing books for release in traditional paper format. In fact I will have three out in 2014. All from the same series. All within a month of each other. In a way it’s a reaction to the book publishing. My traditional publishers are experimenting with different forms of release to see what works. There will definitely be a tour for that new series.

What other writers have inspired you? 

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because there are so many of them I could cite. Some genre writers, some journalists, even some literary figures. Harry Turtledove, Steve Stirling, Stephen King, Eric Flint, Eric L Harry, some of those names you would know, some you wouldn’t. But they are all speculative fiction authors whose work I really admired or enjoyed. In journalism, there’s Hunter S Thompson, of course, but also a bunch of hard-working feature writers whose names might mean nothing to anybody outside the industry. Literature? Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Lord Byron, Tacitus, Pliny, they’re my boys.

What have you been reading lately?

I really enjoyed Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles earlier this year, and I’m looking forward to Peter F Hamilton’s Great North Road over Christmas. I’ve just started Iain M Banks latest Culture novel, and by my bed I have an old copy of Samuel Pepys London diaries that I am reading one day at a time

ISBN: 9781743341391
ISBN-10: 1743341393
Classification: Science fiction , Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945) , Adventure
Format: Paperback (203mm x 127mm x 10mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Pan Australia
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Publish Date: 1-Nov-2012
Country of Publication: Australia

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